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946 – How ‘The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips’ Began

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Read more on 946 – How ‘The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips’ Began from the Kneehigh Cookbook archive.

I recall sitting in the pub in Slapton, a few years ago now, having a bite of lunch and a beer before attending the funeral of a dear friend in the church nearby. I happened to notice some black and white photographs on the wall of the pub and got up to take a closer look. Every one was similar. In each of them there were American soldiers in 2nd World War uniforms. They were in the village and with local people were carrying furniture or loading up wagons. I asked at the bar what they were doing in Slapton during the war. The man said I should read the local history book, and that he happened to have them for sale. I bought one. Well, I had to, didn’t I? And I am very glad I did.

I read it as soon as I got home. It seems that in 1944, Slapton and 6 other nearby villages had to be evacuated within 6 weeks, everything and everyone moved out, so that the Americans could use the entire area for military purposes. The beach at Slapton and the countryside inland was a perfect exercise ground for them to practise beach landings under fire, in preparation for the liberation of Europe that was to come. The evacuation caused great disruption and upset, but it was done. Everyone had to find somewhere else to live, the children had to be schooled elsewhere, the farm animals dispersed. Churches were bagged up, and valuables removed from the houses.

One little girl, a farmer’s daughter had a cat she adored. This cat disappeared on the morning the family were due to pack up the house and leave. They searched high and low, but in the end were forced to leave without her. The perimeter wire was closed behind them as they left. Of course the little girl was distraught. For ten months the Americans practised their landings, with live firing, to simulate real battle conditions. Shells and bombs exploded all around the villages, in amongst the houses and barns and churches.

There was during these exercises a terrible tragedy. During Operation Tiger, a huge landing exercise, US troops were surprised and attacked in their ships by German E Boats out in the Channel. 946 were killed. The tragedy was hushed up because the losses were so appalling. Then, on the 6th of June 1944, the invasion proper began and the Americans went off from Slapton to liberate France. Many died.

A few months later the villagers were allowed at last to return to their homes, to get on with their lives, and repair the damage. The little girl returned home to the farm with her family to find it battered and ruined. To her delight and their utter amazement, the lost cat came meowing out of the house. She had survived all the shelling, and kept herself alive, somehow. Her name, I promise you, was Adolphus Tips!

Tell her story, I thought, tell that little girl’s story, the story of the villagers and the American troops, how they managed, how they got on together. Imagine how it must have been for the US soldiers, far from home, knowing what lay ahead, what they were exercising for. Imagine what the villagers and farmers felt about these friendly invaders, who spoke and behaved so differently, imagine what the children must have thought when they saw their first black American soldier.

That, I did not have to imagine. I moved to London just after WW2, near Earl’s Court, and remember so clearly the first black person I had ever spoken to. He was a very tall American GI. He has stopped me in the street and asked me the way to Piccadilly Circus. I was gobsmacked, couldn’t utter a word, just stared and pointed.’ That way,’ I said. He ruffled my hair, called me ‘good kid’ and went off. He’s probably still looking for Piccadilly Circus!

A few months ago, ten years or so after my book was published, I found myself standing on Slapton Sands with Emma Rice and Mike Shepherd, and all the good folk from the wonderful Cornish Kneehigh Theatre Company, and our great collaboration began. Now they have made a play, and like the story, it is about war, and loss, and race, and friendship between strangers, and memory and love, about then and now, all done their own inimitable way, the Kneehigh way. And I have played a little part in the making of it, which has been a sheer joy and delight.

– Michael Morpurgo

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